As passengers at the Woodberry light rail station waited for their ride to work, a sign over their heads bore a stern warning: "Ticket or Pass Required Before Boarding Train."
But riders at the station couldn't buy a ticket from either of the two ticket vending machines on the platform. One flashed the message "Out of Service." The other just didn't work.
It's been that way a lot lately at Woodberry and apparently other stations along Baltimore's light rail line. In a spot check last month, a reporter found malfunctioning machines at more than half the stations visited - including Patapsco Avenue, Cherry Hill and North Avenue.
Riders say it's a common occurrence to find one or more of the machines partly or fully inoperative at many stations along the north-south line from Hunt Valley to Anne Arundel County. When none of the machines is working, passengers are often confused about what to do. They say they get different answers depending on who they talk to at the Maryland Transit Administration.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan admits the MTA has a problem on its hands that goes far beyond the Woodberry station. In an interview last week, he said the MTA is working hard to fix the malfunctioning fare-collection machines, but acknowledged the agency has no estimate of how much money it might be losing as a result.
"The system is operating as well as it can under the circumstances," he said.
The lack of working machines complicates the difficult task of tracking ridership on the light rail, which is recovering from two years of extensive shutdowns for a double-tracking project completed early this year.
Flanagan said the fare problems, which he blamed on a contract negotiated before the Ehrlich administration took office, are being alleviated by the installation of new machines. With the old machines, he said, about 50 percent were in operation at any time. Now, he said, the percentage is up to 80 percent - a number he said is still unacceptably low.
Anna Ellis of Hampden says she isn't seeing anything near 80 percent at the Woodberry station, where she boards three times a week to commute downtown.
Since January, the 53-year-old computer programmer has been using a spreadsheet to track the malfunctioning of the machines that dispense transit tickets at Woodberry and other light rail stations.
Her records show that most of the time, at least one of the machines at Woodberry either is out of service, won't accept coins, won't give change or won't sell certain types of tickets. A one-way ticket costs $1.60, while a day pass allowing unlimited use of buses, light rail and the Metro subway is $3.50.
Ellis says she has been able to buy a ticket at Woodberry only one time since the middle of April.
"You feel like you should be paying for a ticket," she said.
Ellis said she has called the MTA more than 20 times over the winter and spring to complain about the problem before giving up last month.
"I am not calling anymore; I have called and written; the MTA is well aware of the problem," reads the May 9 entry in her spreadsheet, which tracks the malfunctioning of machines and the calls she made to transit officials.
Flanagan said the MTA's policy is that if riders can't purchase tickets at the stations where they board, they are required to buy a ticket for the ride they just took when they reach their destinations. He said inspectors sometimes leave the trains to see that departing passengers pay.
"Everyone is expected to pay. That's an important principle we enforce," he said.
When a friendly MTA fare inspector came by to check for tickets, a reporter asked what she would have said if a rider had boarded at Woodberry.
"If the machines aren't working at Woodberry, you ride free," the inspector said. Ellis and some other passengers say they have benefited from such largesse.
Other riders - particularly those who use the stations south of Camden Yards - say they have received a less generous response from MTA employees.
Kelly Barth of Lansdowne said that when she has been unable to buy a ticket at Patapsco Avenue, MTA police officers have told her she has to get off at the next station and buy a ticket.
"They'll watch you get off at the next stop," she said. "It can be a bit of a hassle because the train won't wait for you."
Carol Skinner of Woodlawn, who was traveling to Cherry Hill, reported a similar experience. "Sometimes they just put you off the train," she said.
Flanagan said requiring passengers to get off the train and reboard is not MTA policy.
Some riders say they have received citations and paid fines after fare inspectors disregarded their reports of malfunctioning equipment. Edwin Scott of Woodlawn said he recently paid a $75 fine when an inspector gave him a citation for riding without a ticket after he couldn't find a working machine at Lexington Market.
"You tell them what happens, they don't believe you," Scott said. He said he figured it was easier to pay up than contest the ticket.
Many riders interviewed bristled at the indignity of being challenged to show a ticket they couldn't buy.
Leslie Sturtevant of Catonsville, who said she finds the machines broken more often than not, said she will sometimes walk to another downtown light rail station or the nearest Metro station rather than board without a ticket.
"I don't want anybody stopping me," she said. "You don't want to give them a reason to stop and question you."
Flanagan said the MTA's fare machine problem dates to 2001, when the Glendening administration signed what he called an "irregular and unusual" contract with Cubic Transportation Systems - the only company then able to supply the equipment - to provide the machines.
He said the contract lacked many of the terms that usually allow the state to insist on a high level of performance by a vendor. He said Cubic, which remains the vendor under the same contract, has consistently had problems supplying spare parts to keep the machines in good repair.
"Right now we believe it's in the public interest to work with the contractor to get all of the machines operating," Flanagan said. "We are continuing to work on improving the percentages of fully operational machines."